Sydney to SODA

Through UTS BUiLD, I participated in the Drishtee Immersion Program (February 2018). The program facilitates empowering immersive experiences in rural India. I was based in Soda Village, sixty kilometres from Jaipur in India’s desert state of Rajasthan. It is a sprawled-out community whose residents share a rich culture and a way of life so unique and vastly different to one I have in Australia.

My Drishtee immersion was raw, deeply humbling and inspiring. I will never be able to truly describe what I experienced or the emotions I felt and ultimately the cherished memories that will have a lasting effect on me. The incredible people I met helped me learn and discover more about myself and what I would like to accomplish in the future. The program focused on developing empathy and cross-cultural ability through authentic encounters and assisting in creating innovative and sustainable positive impacts. The experience had 3 phases: firstly, entering the community and participating in village life, then secondly participating in workshops and thirdly, the innovation stage where we took part in co-creation with the village partners.

I thought the best way to describe my experience was to share my favourite memories and highlights from the trip. First of all, every day was unique whether it was visiting a school or hospital, or witnessing a religious festival, chopping wheat in the fields with the farmers, or just walking around the village all of which made for a very dynamic and intense three weeks.

 

One highlight was our first day where we were welcomed into the village and greeted with traditional customs, loud music, decorated horses and dancing women. The ceremony gave me the opportunity to meet children, mothers and many influential community leaders. The cultural customs and generosity of the welcome was incredible, and I have never felt so overwhelmed by positivity and love. Despite the language and cultural barriers, I was able to connect with people purely by building story-telling techniques or simply by sharing a moment together where words were not necessary. Some of my favourite memories are when I was simply sitting in people’s homes, sipping masala chai talking and listening about their families, work, experiences, their hopes and dreams or telling them about my life and where I came from.

It was from these conversations I was able to build authentic and meaningful connections with people. Simply walking around the community and observing daily life was fascinating and I felt thankful of the opportunity I was given. Watching men huddled in groups played cards, children running and yelling playing cricket, women herding their goats and cows to the fields or cooking fresh chapati over a fire or even watching the sunset on the rooftop were some of my favourite memories.

 

Another highpoint was during the final phases where we began workshops with our village partners exploring and producing exciting ideas. The specific area I focused on was women’s empowerment, a very broad, complicated and sensitive issue which proved to be quite a challenge. However, my passion for gender equality combined with village collaboration created a journey of understanding of this multi-layered issue. It involved talking many different women in the community, visiting schools, hospitals, spending a day with a family or going out into the agricultural fields. The root of many community issues is entrenched within historical, environmental and cultural foundations. Consequently, we needed to create ways of slowly releasing empowerment and independence for women whilst preserving culture and livelihood.

 

My partner Anastasia and I closely examined women’s needs such as earning an alternative income, building self-confidence, creating social support and breaking down of firmly entrenched gender roles. Our idea was an all-women’s sewing group which utilises a skill which is already within the community and is easy to learn for the untrained. This would give them the ability to earn extra income which is directly given to them. The sewing group would also assist in preserving and enriching social bonds and give a sense of community to these women.

One of the inspirations for our project was a lady who faced many problems and challenges which we decided to address in an initial proto-type. The lady owned a shop but had recently become a widow and expressed to us that she now needed extra income and wanted to utilise her sewing skills with other women in the community. We also came across many other hard-working women eager for extra income, particularly those whose main source of income was working in the fields.

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Finally, another highlight was sharing these experiences with other UTS students and the Immersion Facilitators. Although we had not met prior to the Immersion, we all bonded and gave each other support either through our projects, laughing and exchanging stories at mealtimes or playing a quick game of frisbee in our spare time. I was so impressed and inspired and by the work everyone was involved in. I will never forget the friendships and the connections we made together. My time in India and my Drishtee Immersion experience was a very special opportunity which I would highly recommend to other students. I would like to say thank you to UTS BUiLD, Drishtee Immersion, the Facilitators and Organisers and the UTS students who joined me for making this experience one I’ll always treasure and will never forget.

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